In concert – Strings of the CBSO / Eugene Tzikindelean: Four Seasons

Strings of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Eugene Tzikindelean (above)

Schubert arr. Mahler String Quartet no.14 in D minor D810 ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ (1824, arr. 1896)
Vivaldi Le quattro Stagioni Op.8 nos. 1-4 (1718-20)
Piazzolla arr. Desyatnikov Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (1965-9, arr. 1996-8)

Town Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 22 April 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Acoustically transformed following its refurbishment some 15 years ago, a commendably full Town Hall proved to be the ideal venue for this judiciously balanced programme featuring the strings of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with its leader Eugene Tzikindelean.

Mahler never fully completed his arrangement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet, but this has enjoyed not a few hearings since its realization by David Matthews with Donald Mitchell four decades ago. Tzikindelean presided over a brisk, incisive opening Allegro (its exposition-repeat not unreasonably omitted), and if the 30-strong ensemble had not quite the tonal depth or dynamic range that Mahler likely envisaged, there was no lack of immediacy – at least until momentum faltered slightly in the later stages of the reprise then into the coda.

No such uncertainty affected the Andante (the only movement elaborated by Mahler), whose variations on Schubert’s earlier song exuded a cumulative intensity up to the theme’s soulful reappearance toward the close. Nor did the Scherzo lack for truculence over its brief yet vital course, assuaged by the trio’s wistful elegance, while the final Presto unfolded as a tarantella as agile as it was malevolent. Tzikindelean kept his players on a tight if never inflexible rein through to a coda that brought this (for the most part) powerful reading to its decisive close.

Tzikindelean having vacated the leader’s chair for centre-stage, the second half consisted of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons interspersed with Astor Piazzolla’s take on the seasons from the perspective of Buenos Aires. Brought together a quarter-century ago (at the behest of Gidon Kremer for his group Kremerata Baltica) by Leonid Desyatnikov, with numerous references to the Baroque master, the outcome is a provocative amalgam between ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ which the CBSO strings rendered with alacrity. Among the highlights from the Vivaldi might be mentioned the plaintive eloquence of the Largo from Spring, the coursing impetus of the Presto from Summer, alternation of the robust and poetic in the initial Allegro of Autumn, or that discreetly alluring interplay of legato and pizzicato writing in the Largo from Winter.

Heard in the sequence ‘Summer-Autumn-Winter-Spring’, the tangos by Piazzolla offer any number of anticipations whether melodic or textural. A significant feature of Desyatnikov’s arrangement is the prominence accorded to the leaders from each section which were seized upon gratefully – not least by cellist Eduardo Vassallo, whose Piazzolla recordings with his ensemble El Ultimo Tango are a masterclass in performance from the chamber perspective. While each of the present pieces is more than the sum of its parts, surely the most arresting instance is that towards the close of ‘Spring’ when the harpsichord (ably taken by Masumi Yamamoto) emerges with an allusion to Vivaldi’s opening theme – a coup de théâtre that is seldom less than spellbinding, and duly worked its magic as part of tonight’s performance.

An impressive showing, then, for the CBSO strings and Tzikindelean – who will hopefully be making further appearances both as soloist and director in the coming season. Certainly, the repertoire for string orchestra is one whose exploration should prove well worthwhile.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. You can read more about Eugene Tzikindelean here, and more about El Ultimo Tango here

Playlist – Sarah Beth Briggs

It gives us great pleasure to welcome pianist Sarah Beth Briggs as a guest curator for the Arcana playlist.

Sarah releases her new album Variations on Friday 24 March, a collection of works in the form by Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms. It complements a discography for AVIE that already boasts The Austrian Connection and discs of works for piano solo by Schumann and Brahms, and piano trios by Gál and Shostakovich as part of the Briggs Piano Trio.

We asked her for a blend of her current listening and one piece inspired by the Variations album – and I think you’ll agree she has come up with something rather special in the form of Edmund Rubbra’s rare but strikingly original orchestration of BrahmsVariations on a theme of Handel. Here it is in the only available current recording, conducted by Neeme Järvi:

As to her current listening, Sarah gives us a trio of very fine chamber works from the 19th century, Beethoven and Schubert to be precise, and the music of Hans Gál, finally emerging into the public consciousness – his very fine Cello Concerto:

We end with peerless jazz, the Oscar Peterson Trio and their wonderful Night Train

Our grateful thanks to Sarah – do have a listen on the Spotify link below:

In concert – CBSO / Edward Gardner: Simply Schubert – Symphonies 1 & 4



Fierrabras D796 – Overture (1823); Symphony no.1 in D major D82 (1813); Symphony no.4 in C minor D417 ‘Tragic’ (1816)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner

Town Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 14 July 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

One of many projects left in abeyance by the pandemic, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Schubert cycle with its former principal guest conductor Edward Gardner duly continued this evening with a programme of that composer’s First and Fourth Symphonies.

Schubert may have been barely 16 when he essayed his First Symphony, but its confident if quirky assimilation of traits as derived from Haydn and Beethoven is more than a statement of intent – not least with an opening Allegro whose imposing introduction returns after the development to broaden the movement’s emotional scope. Gardner realized this unerringly, while drawing an incisive response from the CBSO in the first theme and winsome elegance in its successor as subsequently headed into a coda of bracing if not overly insistent finality.

For all its Mozartian gracefulness, the Andante yields an emotional ambivalence most notable in the plangent exchanges of woodwind and string towards its centre. These were enticingly conveyed, as was that contrast between rhythmic trenchancy in the Menuetto’s outer sections with its trio’s more affable demeanour. Precision of ensemble meant the final Allegro never risked seeming repetitious, Gardner steering it with assurance and not a little flexibility to a coda that emerged as never less than entertaining in its forceful reiterations of the home key.

Three years on, the Fourth Symphony confirms a greater formal and expressive breadth – not least in the first movement’s introductory Adagio whose underlying portentousness makes its contrast with an impulsive and often anxious Allegro more acute. Gardner and the CBSO had its measure, as they did the ensuing Andante in which Schubert’s woodwind writing is heard at its most felicitous. Any contrived distinction between the hymnic main theme and its more volatile alternate episodes was hardly in evidence as this movement drew to its easeful close.

For all its brevity, the Menuetto (a scherzo in all but name) can be rhythmically treacherous in its syncopation, but there was no lack of focus here or in the trio’s folk-like lyricism. Nor did the moto perpetuo underpinning the final Allegro run out of steam – Gardner sustaining   a cumulative momentum across the exposition’s repeat then into an intensive development which brought an opening-out of mood through to those decisive closing chords. Its ‘tragic’ connotations may be tangential, but the teenager’s seriousness of purpose cannot be denied.

Opening the programme was a relatively rare revival of the overture to Fierrabras, the last of Schubert’s ill-fated attempts at grand opera – even though time and subsequent stagings have largely vindicated his efforts. Gardner drew palpable expectation from its introduction, and if what ensues seemed a little stolid rhythmically, the dramatic flair of the composer’s orchestral writing was not in doubt. A pity the even less often heard Overture in E minor (1819) did not open the second half, as its abstract drama would have prefaced the Fourth Symphony ideally.

In any case, this was a welcome addendum to the CBSO’s current season and not least for an opportunity to hear the orchestra playing at its former venue of Town Hall. Hopefully another such concert, featuring Schubert’s Great Symphony, can be scheduled sometime next year.

For more information on the CBSO and their 2022-23 season, visit the dedicated page on their website. Meanwhile click here for more on conductor Edward Gardner.

Playlist: Herbert Blomstedt at 95

by Ben Hogwood

To mark the 95th birthday of the great Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt on Monday just gone, Arcana has put together a playlist including a snapshot of some of his greatest and most enduring recordings.

They include the Fifth Symphony of Nielsen, part of a landmark cycle of the composer’s symphonies with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for Decca. Blomstedt’s recordings with that orchestra in the 1990s were notable for their sonic prowess but left some critics cold; however on revisiting his Sibelius cycle, for instance, they stand up very well. The Third Symphony is included here, as is the first Peer Gynt Suite of Grieg.

Also in the 1990s came a trio of fascinating discs lending weight to the cause of Paul Hindemith. A disc of the Mathis der Maler Symphony, the Symphonic Metamorphoses and Trauermusik was to be expected, perhaps, but the follow-ups were even more valuable – a disc of the music for Nobilissima Visione, the Konzertmusik for Brass and Strings and Der Schwanendreher, and a pairing of the Symphonia Serena and symphony from the opera Die Harmonie der Welt, included here.

Blomstedt has more recently recorded a well-received Brahms cycle with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, though prior to that recorded a fine disc of the composer’s choral works in San Francisco. With the Gewandhaus, however, he has completed his most recent release, that of Schubert’s Unfinished and Great symphonies. The former is included here. Enjoy this selection of wonderful recordings!

In concert – BBC Philharmonic Orchestra & Jac van Steen – David Matthews Symphony no.10 world premiere, Schubert & Brahms


Brahms Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor Op.13 (1854-8)
Overture to Rosamunde D797 (1820)
David Matthews
Symphony no.10 Op.157 (2020-21) [World premiere]

Stephen Hough (piano, below), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Jac van Steen (above)

MediaCity UK, Salford Quays
Friday 20 May 2022, 3pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

A substantial programme was the order of the day for this afternoon’s studio concert from the BBC Philharmonic with Jac van Steen, given at the orchestra’s regular base in MediaCityUK and that featured a first performance anywhere for the Tenth Symphony by David Matthews.

Whereas his previous symphony was written for relatively modest dimensions, the Tenth marks a return to larger forces: triple woodwind (with doublings), four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba and four percussionists alongside timpani, celesta, piano, harp, and strings. It also finds Matthews (above) retackling the one-movement format that dominated his earlier symphonies, allied to a subtle process of developing variation such as ensures unity across a varied and eventful discourse. Not least when that massive opening chord sets out a long-range tonal and harmonic trajectory for this work overall, and to which a pensive (offstage) cor anglais solo then intensifying string fugato provide both continuation and contrast by anticipating the types of expression and motion as variously come to the fore.

Distinctive in themselves yet drawn into a tensile and cohesive entity, the constituent sections take in a wistful intermezzo then an agile scherzo on the way to a central culmination whose increasingly explosive energy likely marks a point of greatest engagement with that opening chord. The music duly heads into a slower episode of sustained emotional raptness, elements heard earlier gradually being recalled through an unforced while never discursive process of reprise towards a coda whose ending seems the more conclusive for its poised equivocation. An absorbing and often gripping exploration of symphonic tenets such as Matthews has long pursued, persuasively realized by the BBCPO and van Steen – whose support of the composer – having already recorded the Second, Sixth and Eighth Symphonies – hardly needs restating.

Before the interval, Stephen Hough (above) was soloist in Brahms’s First Piano Concerto – a piece he has given many times (not least a memorable reading at London’s Royal Festival Hall in the early 1990s, Andrew Davis also giving a seismic account of the Symphony by the late Hugh Wood). There was emotional breadth aplenty in the initial Maestoso, but also latest energy as came to the fore in a combative development and tempestuous coda. Nor was the symphonic aspect underplayed in what is still the most monumental opening movement of any concerto.

If the central Adagio lacked a degree of repose in its orchestral introduction, Hough’s take on its almost confessional solo passages brought the required inwardness, with the course of this movement towards its agitated peak or enfolding serenity at its close never in doubt. Nor was that of the closing rondo, especially a central episode whose string fugato was deftly rendered then the piano’s gentle response enticingly conveyed. After the cadenza, horns and woodwind emerged as if leaving a benediction prior to the triumph that coursed through those final bars.

Throughout this performance, van Steen was an alert and responsive accompanist – then put the BBC Philharmonic through its paces with an animated account of Schubert’s Rosamunde (a.k.a. Die Zauberharfe), which made for an engaging if unlikely entrée into the Matthews.

For more information on David Matthews you can visit his website here. For more on the artists in this concert, click on the names to access the websites of Stephen Hough, Jac van Steen and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra